Likened to Hollywood hit Love Story, this film beat Jackie Chan, Jet Li at the Hong Kong box office in 1993
- C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri features Lau Ching-wan as a struggling musician who falls in love with an opera singer with cancer, played by Anita Yuen
- The melodrama was acclaimed by critics, took more at the box office in 1993 than Jackie Chan’s City Hunter and Jet Li’s Fong Sai Yuk, and won several awards
Released during a year of slapstick costume comedies, martial arts films, violent horror and Category III (equivalent to NC-17 in the US and 18 in the UK) films, the refined melodrama C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri was a surprise hit in Hong Kong in the last months of 1993.
C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri finished fourth in the year-end box-office charts, surpassed only by two Stephen Chow Sing-chi comedies and a Lunar New Year film.
“Director/screenwriter Derek Yee endows the somewhat stereotypical situations with a great deal of sincerity, investing the ‘young girl suffering from a fatal disease’ premise with a freshness and emotional resonance largely absent from Cantonese films,” wrote Post critic Paul Fonoroff, who compared the film to the 1970s Hollywood mega hit Love Story starring Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal.
The story is chock-a-block with the different musical styles of the Hong Kong music scene at the time – Canto-pop, Mando-pop, Cantonese opera, jazz and rock all feature.
Leaving Tracey’s swish flat for a squalid dwelling in gritty Mong Kok, and ditching her in the process, Kit encounters Min (Yuen), who makes a living singing Cantonese opera with her family at Temple Street market.
Kit thinks Min has talent, and wants to introduce her to some producers in the Canto-pop world, but her protective mother (Fung Bo-bo in a multilayered performance), tries to hold her back.
Kit finds out that Min is more fragile than she looks, as she is on remission from bone cancer. The two musicians fall in love, but tragedy ensues.
The melodramatic elements don’t arrive until an hour has passed, and when they do, they are beautifully understated. Much of the film up to that point consists of a relatively detailed look at the lives of the musicians.
Making a living is paramount, and both Kit and Min lament the fact that they have to sell out to survive – she says that even Cantonese opera performers have to sing popular favourites, rather than their more artistic repertoire, to make money.
Kit, meanwhile, laments the coming to the Canto-pop world of computerised MIDI music technology – which enables producers to create instrument sounds electronically – as this has put session musicians like himself out of work.
Yee said that C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri grew out of two film ideas: one about a young woman with a terminal disease, and one about a family performing music on Temple Street. He combined the stories and sold the idea to Golden Harvest in 1990.
The deal fell through, and the film was finally produced as the first offering of Yee’s independent Film Unlimited company. Yee was surprised by the film’s success, he told the Post in 1993.
“I’ve never had such a reaction,” he said after watching the audience during a screening. “How did I write a script that makes them laugh, that moves them so much?’ he said.
“The thing I am happiest about is how many people react to the story and the dialogue … If you put your heart into a film, it will come to life.”
According to leading critic Sek Kei, the movie “injected new life into the shopworn genre and created a new image of women”.
“C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri is particularly moving, and without affectation. It’s an incurable disease story, but it’s not pessimistic – there is even joy in simple human goodness,” Sek Kei said.
Others praised Yee for returning to a more traditional form of storytelling compared to the wildly innovative martial arts films and slapstick mo lei tau (“nonsense talk”) comedies that dominated local screens in the early 1990s.
“The biggest merit of C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri is that it boldly reasserts the importance of traditional dramatic elements – all the things that most Hong Kong films have battered, ridiculed and obscenely exploited. The film has themes and feelings,” wrote Hong Kong Economic Journal critic Lin Li.
“In the end, the most important thing about the film is its compassion for humanity.”
Although Yee was only in his 30s when he made C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri, he was already an industry veteran. He was born into a movies family – his father, Er Guang, was a producer, and his mother, Hung Wei, was a well-known character actress who featured in around 120 films.
His first film as director, 1986’s The Lunatics, gained him a reputation for following his own path even if it meant going against prevailing trends. In a 2005 article, the Post’s Clarence Tsui described Yee as “one of the most bankable names in Hong Kong cinema”, while noting that he remained a thoroughly independent filmmaker.
Yee has noted that although C’est La Vie was a major hit, it didn’t change the trajectory of his career in a major way – indeed, he has said that its main effect was that it gave him an incredibly hard act to follow.
The film elevated the profile of Lau Ching-wan, who told this journalist that playing the impoverished musician was not a stretch, as he was an impoverished actor himself at the time. The film also made a major star of Anita Yuen, who cemented her success with Peter Chan Ho-sun’s He’s a Woman, She’s a Man.
In the tradition of Hong Kong cinema, a bunch of low-budget melodramas quickly turned up to capitalise on the success of C’est La Vie. But none connected with the public, and only Clifton Ko Chi-sum’s I Have A Date With Spring was a moderate success.
In this regular feature series on the best of Hong Kong cinema, we examine the legacy of classic films, re-evaluate the careers of its greatest stars, and revisit some of the lesser-known aspects of the beloved industry.